Shame: The Most Useless Emotion By Far

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If you are like most people, you probably do not think of your emotions as useful at all. Except, perhaps, the happy ones that make you feel good.

But what about all the others? Such as hurt, frustration, anxiety, apprehension, sadness or anger, for example?

Thanks to research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, we now know that we are born biologically wired with emotions for a reason. In fact, emotions are valuable messages from our bodies.

One of my main goals as a psychologist, author and blogger is to make everyone aware of this invaluable resource — your feelings — and the importance of paying attention to them and listening to their messages.

But there is one emotion that, in my opinion, belongs in a separate category from the rest. Like the other feelings, it does carry a message from your body. But that message is limited in its value and is also damaging to your inner self.

It’s shame.

Let’s start with the official definition of shame, straight from the dictionary. Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Synonyms are humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, and indignity.

So what message is your body sending when you feel shame? “You just did something wrong or foolish. Stop it now, and do not do it again.”

That message is helpful when you’ve actually done something wrong; something that harms yourself or someone else. But I have seen shame rear it’s painful head in many lovely people who do not deserve it, and over many situations which do not call for it.

3 Ways Shame Can Be Damaging To You

  1. Shame has an uncanny ability to become free-floating so it can attach itself to situations where it does not belong.
  2. Shame is such an acutely painful feeling that it often has more power over you than it should.
  3. Built into the feeling of shame is a negative assessment of yourself. Every time you feel it, your self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-love are damaged.

In my discussions with thousands of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have seen that growing up with your feelings ignored makes you prone to shame. There are good reasons why CEN makes you prone to shame.

If as a child you received the message that your emotions are excessive, burdensome or unwelcome, it is natural to feel ashamed of having them. Living your adult life feeling ashamed of such a deeply personal, biological expression of who you are – your emotions – predisposes you to feel shame all too readily about everything else. 

When Shame Is Helpful

When Lotta woke up with a terrible hangover, she realized she drank way too much the night before and had made a fool of herself. She felt a pang of shame and vowed to never drink that much again.

Scott realized that he was subtly flirting with a colleague at a conference. He thought about how loyal his wife was to him, and he felt shame about his own behavior. He stopped himself immediately.

Olivia loved the leftover cake so much that she ate three big pieces in one sitting. Soon after, feeling ill, she felt shame about having over-indulged herself. “This feels disgusting in every way,” she thought. “I’m going to give away the remainder of this cake so that this will not happen again.”

When Shame is Not Helpful

Cynthia reviewed everything she’d said at the party the night before, going over and over it in her head. “I was too forward, that was too silly, I shouldn’t have said that dumb comment,” she ruminated. With each recollection, she felt a pang of shame.

Erik wanted to tell his family about his promotion at work, but every time he started to announce it, he felt a jolt of inexplicable shame that held him back.

Jorge tried not to ever think about the abuse he had suffered as a child, because every time he did, he was overcome with a terrible feeling of shame.

How To Know If Your Shame Is Healthy Or Damaging

Your shame is helpful only if it offers you a healthy action. Clearly, Lotta’s, Scott’s and Olivia’s shame is sending them helpful messages to make better choices, combined with enough discomfort to drive them to follow through on those choices.

On the other hand, Cynthia’s shame is draining her energy by causing her to ruminate needlessly. Erik’s shame is holding him back from the positive accolades and pride he deserves. And Jorge’s shame is blocking him from healing the childhood trauma that was not his fault or choice.

There are no messages for any actions in the Unhelpful Shame group. It would be helpful for Cynthia, Erik and Jorge to realize their shame is damaging them and start to manage it instead of letting it control them.

Take Control Of Your Shame

  1. Watch for pangs of shame. When you feel one, take note, and stop whatever you are doing.
  2. Ask yourself, “What is this shame telling me? Is it offering me a healthy action?”
  3. If you can identify a helpful message, listen to it.
  4. If you cannot, consider the possibility that this is useless shame.
  5. Say to yourself, “This is useless shame. I will not allow it to control me.” Then do whatever you need to distract or divert yourself from the feeling. Every time it creeps back, say it again and divert yourself again.

Keep in mind that every feeling of shame puts a chink in your self-esteem if you allow it to continue unchecked and unprocessed. So if you hear a healthy message, the sooner you can listen to it and put it aside, the better.

If you feel a lot of shame, there’s a good chance you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). But CEN is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Lisa - September 4, 2018 Reply

I have dealt with so much shame in my life. I’m 57, and still struggling with unearned shame from my childhood. Don’t have a lot of hope that I will ever get past it.

    Jonice - September 4, 2018 Reply

    Dear Lisa, you don’t need hope; you only need perseverance. You can fight back the shame by becoming aware of it and purposely battling it, day after day without giving up. I hope you’ll fight the battle.

christine - September 3, 2018 Reply

I really get so much out of reading your emails and I’m working through your book.
Shame has been a huge part of me and used to wonder why others didn’t seem to feel the level of shame I felt. There again I thought there was something very wrong with me, which perpetuated the whole thing.
Thank you for your work and help. It has helped me to understand my parents and myself.

Miri - September 3, 2018 Reply

I have CEN and have experienced shame since childhood. I had a friend with whom I recently ended the friendship because I not only often felt shamed by his words and actions towards me, but strongly feel his words and actions WERE indeed shaming. Based on what he had shared with me of his childhood I believe he also has CEN. There were times when I struggled that he felt uncomfortable with me because it reminded him of his childhood. He became hiper critical of me and only pointed out those things about me he disagreed with, didn’t like, etc…never the positive…I could say so many supportive and complementary things and he would hone in on the one thing that bothered him and ignore the rest…very defensive but also saying hurtful things about me in the process. I’m wondering if some people with insecurities and their own sense of shame (or with CEN) can often become people who shame others…?

    Jonice - September 3, 2018 Reply

    Dear Miri, shaming others is not a part of the pure CEN picture. But I do think that people who are actively shamed by their parents can certainly internalize that tendency to shame others. They may not realize it’s not healthy or normal because they grew up with it. I’m glad you are protecting yourself from being treated this way.

Yvonne McIndo - September 3, 2018 Reply

Hi Jonice

I feel shame regularly because I do such stupid things. I have difficulty in forgiving myself for being so stupid. Maybe this is because I have Asperger’s Syndrome and was not diagnosed until I was 50 years old.

I would be grateful for any comments you may have.

    Jonice - September 3, 2018 Reply

    Dear Yvonne, everyone does stupid things. It’s a part of being human. I think having any undiagnosed condition can make you feel different and damaged, so I’m sure this might have happened for you with undiagnosed Asperger’s. I encourage you to keep working toward connecting with your emotions. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Sahndra - September 2, 2018 Reply

Pure gold! Thank you.

    Jonice - September 2, 2018 Reply

    All my best to you Sahndra!

Fleur - September 2, 2018 Reply

“So if you hear a healthy message the sooner you can listen to it and put it aside the better” – please clarify this sentence? “It” twice confuses me. Thank you

    Jonice - September 2, 2018 Reply

    Hi Fleur, in this sentence I’m suggesting that we listen to the healthy messages some emotions are sending to us. But after we discern the message of shame, we must then put the shame aside, as if we let it persist, it will drain and damage us. I hope this explains it.

Al - September 2, 2018 Reply

I love reading the articles that come in the emails. It is the only email subscription I actually pay atention to because it is a gentle reminder that I’m still working on walking in the healing from my CEN. I was really pleased to read today’s article about shame. I think shame is an emotion that has been hidden for a long time and is being brought out into the open. However, I think there was a bit of confusion in this article between the emotions of guilt and shame. Guilt says “I DID a bad thing and I need to stop” and Shame says “I AM a bad thing and I need to stop.” Brene Brown’s research and books on Shame are phenominal. For anyone who is intrigued by this article and the effects of shame, I highly recommend reading some of her work alongside Jonice’s work on CEN. Thank you for this article!!

    Jonice - September 2, 2018 Reply

    Hi Al, yes Brene Brown is the true guru of shame. I agree and highly recommend her articles and YouTube videos. I have suggested them to many of my CEN clients. Thanks for your insightful comment!

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